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Credit: Netflix

How the Santa Clarita Diet costume design is empowering

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May 5, 2019

From the outside looking in on Santa Clarita Diet, Sheila (Drew Barrymore) and Joel Hammond (Timothy Olyphant) are a regular married couple with a teenage daughter living in Southern California. They have been together since high school, and they also work together as realtors. Nothing out of the ordinary here, right? But people aren’t always what they seem, as this picture of domesticity is turned on its head when a virus causes Sheila to become undead. This isn’t a case of The Walking Dead, in which mindless zombies will wear the outfit they died in until the material and their bodies turn to nothing but shreds. Instead, Sheila’s newfound confidence impacts the clothes she wears in a positive manner.

Costume designer Mona May has worked with Drew Barrymore for over 20 years, on features such as The Wedding Singer and Never Been Kissed — which just celebrated its 20th anniversary — as well as creating the iconic looks from Clueless, Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, and Enchanted. Barrymore brought May onto Santa Clarita Diet from its inception, but this is the first time May and Barrymore have collaborated on a project spanning this long a period of time. SYFY WIRE FANGRRLS hopped on the phone to talk to May about this partnership, the challenges of designing a show with this much blood, and how the Hammond family have changed throughout the Netflix zombie comedy.

Santa Clarita Diet spoilers ahead

Santa Clarita Diet

Credit: Netflix 

It has been three years for viewers, but only a month has passed since Sheila came back to life. A lot has happened to the couple over this relatively short time period, including getting used to Sheila’s people-only diet. Sheila's id is now in control, which has boosted confidence levels, impacting both her sex life and her closet. Before the incident, her look was pretty basic, and May notes the pieces were pretty simple and sensible. Although there is a noticeable change, it isn’t accompanied by a huge makeover montage; it is more subtle. “We started getting her out of the dowdy clothes, into much more sophisticated [clothes]. The hair was starting to change. That was the whole transformation all the way to Season 3,” said May. It was a continuous process of adding more sophisticated garments. “We would keep bumping it up.”

More designer items by brands including Alexander McQueen, Gucci, and Saint Laurent were added to Sheila’s closet, but May is quick to point out that Sheila’s costuming isn’t a high-end-garment-only zone. Rather, it is more about knowing what looks good on Sheila, which includes a mix of high, low, and vintage fashion — something that has been a feature of May’s work since Clueless.

This show is a heightened version of the world, but an element of authenticity is the foundation in how May mixes garments from a variety of stores and price points. “It is real. That is how we all dress now. We have the H&M thing, the flip flops from Target, the $200 jacket, some vintage. That is what is so cool about the times we live in now.”

Santa Clarita Diet

Credit: Netflix 

Another key aspect of May’s work on Santa Clarita Diet (and beyond) is the level of joy and color in her costume design, which speaks to how clothing can be empowering. She was attracted to this project because “it was about owning your power and who you are, being strong, being able to be sexy and powerful, but also a mother and good wife that cares,” she explained. “That was the balance I always wanted to have with her [Sheila] character and the clothes. That is all my work.”

There is nothing simple about the zombie transformation process, and with each season Sheila and Joel have come up against numerous obstacles, all of which have put their marriage to the test. But the bonds between characters remain unbroken, and the Hammonds get stronger as a family unit, no matter how many people that have been physically ripped apart.

Logistical considerations impact costume choice, with May noting it always starts with what is in the script. This is a messy show, which features gallons of fake blood and scenes in which Sheila leaps onto people. May jokes that jumpsuits are “very good for killing. Zip it up, it covers everything,” before pointing out that in the past Sheila and Joel have worn plastic to protect their clothes — the latter idea came from creator Victor Fresco.

Making sure actors are comfortable and safe is the number-one priority, so May has to factor in clothes for the cold desert climate, sensible shoes for running in, and doubles for the stunt team — five of each item is required. Not only that, but they need garments that won’t rip. For the killing scenes, colors are picked based on what will complement and highlight the blood on screen, taking into account both Sheila and her victims. Continuity is also a factor, as they don’t always shoot in sequence and it is important to match the blood levels. The costume team also talks to the hair and makeup departments to find out how much blood will feature and what shade it will be.

Santa Clarita Diet

Credit: Netflix 

Not only are they bringing the show to life — or death — via blood effects, but May also wants the clothes to look lived in, particularly for its central teenagers, Abby (Liv Hewson) and Eric (Skyler Gisondo). She doesn’t want the costumes to appear brand new, which means the garments are stone washed and aged. Again, this helps ground the characters in reality. For Abby, this includes a mix of contemporary and vintage garments, including a 1970s western shirt with a floral print. You can either go to the mall or “dig deeper,” and May prefers to do the latter.

Even though clothes are not a big part of who Eric is, a lot of thought still goes into his attire. “I tried to keep him wrinkly, not pressed,” said May, as a way to make it look like he had picked up whatever shirt from his bedroom floor. Shirts were also designed and made in-house with logos to match his personality. There is a little bit of Joel costume mirroring, as he lacks a father figure in his life and wants to be involved with whatever is going on next door.

Joel has also experienced less of a transformation; he is still a casual SoCal guy through and through. May explains that Timothy Olyphant also didn’t want to be “super pressed,” so they generally kept things loose. Blues and grays dominate Joel's costuming because “he looks so good” in those shades (and it matches his eyes). There are a lot of henleys, polos, T-shirts, jeans, and button-downs by brands such as Theory and John Varvatos, sometimes paired with his trusty flip flops and spectacles. However, Joel did get one costume upgrade this season when he was sworn in as a Knight of Serbia.

Santa Clarita Diet

Credit: Netflix 

During the swearing-in ceremony, he wore a long green cape, which May was ecstatic about, noting it was “really fun to create” and do something different to support the story. Her research included looking at Eastern European knights from medieval times, adding that it was “a bit of history even though it is a little bit fake. We created our own history for the zombies.”

As with a lot of television shows, the pace of working on Santa Clarita Diet is a challenge because they are always working on multiple episodes, but May is also quick to point out what a rewarding and fun experience it has been. There is a level of freedom May has been granted by showrunner Fresco, as well as Barrymore and Olyphant (who also serve as producers), in her costume design. She explained that there is “a lot of room to play at the comedy with clothes.”

Santa Clarita Diet

Credit: Netflix

Working with Barrymore for so long also comes with its own special shorthand, which May refers to as “telepathic, almost.” They not only instinctually know what will work, but also bounce ideas off each other. May credits Barrymore with suggesting large earrings for Season 3, which look fantastic on this character. Power jewelry gets its name for a reason, and this aesthetic is perfect for Sheila, particularly now that she is more settled in her undead status. Again, this is a mix of high and low price points, featuring a lot of Vanessa Mooney, some vintage ‘90s pieces (including the geometric gold earrings pictured above) and blue earrings made by artisans in Sante Fe.

Boho chic can be seen in other accessories, such as the Etro belt in the finale. This is another area in which May and Barrymore share similar instincts; a belt is more than just a way to tie an outfit together. “All of that was interesting for us, to do a blend of strength, vulnerability, sexiness. Nothing too sexy or not too strong,” said May. "A superhero, but down to earth. Always knowing that you are the mom in there too. We didn't want to lose that.” It was important for them to remember all of these factors when designing Sheila’s look.

Santa Clarita Diet

Credit: Netflix

In the season finale, Joel and Sheila put on their realtor finest when they host a launch party for their business. A crisis means Sheila has to ditch her glittery jacket to save Joel, but the choice of dress was important, as it had to be worthy of this event, but also safe to perform stunts in. As Sheila is undead she has not blood but black goo running through her veins. Her costume had to be a color that would emphasize her zombie innards. The blush frock is by Los Angeles label dRA — the brand is described as “clean and modern with a bohemian sensibility,” which sounds very Sheila — and it is ultra-feminine while also being perfect for the trickier logistical concerns. This is one of May's costume favorites; other highlights for the designer include an Alexander McQueen suit from the Season 2 premiere and the patterned Warm jumpsuit Sheila wears when Joel is knighted. These three garments are a good cross section of Sheila’s style, and that particular jumpsuit had everyone (including Barrymore) coveting it hard.

Our conversation with May took place just before the cancellation news, which is a big blow considering the cliffhanger Season 3 ends on. Santa Clarita Diet managed to strike a balance between the absurd and the heartfelt in its exploration of marriage and adolescence. It is also incredibly funny and timely in both the real-world horrors it portrays and the ones invented for the screen. May talked with enthusiasm about her personal Santa Clarita Diet experience, as well as highlighting the important work Barrymore was doing in her role as a producer. This includes how Barrymore used her power to bring more women onto the show in multiple departments, including assistant directors and producers. Empowerment is a big part of Sheila and her costuming, something that is evident in front of and behind the camera. May added as the interview was coming to a close, "It is really important to support us in our industry,” and Barrymore is doing just that.

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